Big Midweek: Atletico, Liverpool, Allegri, Alli, Sunderland

Date published: Tuesday 21st November 2017 8:15

Game to watch – Atletico Madrid vs Roma
Unfortunately, the truth is that with two Champions League and Europa League gameweeks remaining, the group stage campaigns of most Premier League clubs are almost finalised. Tottenham, Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal have virtually secured top spot in their groups, while Everton have been eliminated. That leaves Liverpool and Chelsea. The former are covered two sections below this one – stick with me, Mr/Ms Impatient – whilst the latter play a team against whom they have already scored six goals.

Yet the most intriguing match in the Champions League does take place in Chelsea’s group, where Atletico Madrid are attempting to salvage their season. Diego Simeone’s team lie fourth in La Liga, ten points behind Barcelona, and somehow managed to take only two points from their two fixtures against Qarabag in Group C. Atletico must beat Roma if they are to have any chance of qualification for the last 16. Only once in their history have they been knocked out in the group stages of this competition.

With Antoine Griezmann subject to catcalls from his own supporters due to his recent underwhelming form, the suspicion is that the Simeone era, this spell of astonishing over-achievement, is coming to a close.

Antonio Conte would presumably stick to the well-thumbed script and insist that he was only concentrating on Chelsea’s results, but it would be interesting to know which result he would prefer. A Roma victory would confirm Chelsea’s qualification from a difficult group but see them likely finish second, but Atletico victory would give Chelsea an opportunity to top Group C with one match remaining and have an easier last-16 draw in their hands. A draw would mean Chelsea qualify, but Roma would still hold the advantage given their better head-to-head record over Conte’s side.


Player to watch – Dele Alli
All is not well in Dele Alli’s world. Three goals and a single assist in the Premier League is hardly disastrous, but Saturday was the latest example of Alli struggling to dominate matches in the manner of his 2016/17 swagger. Opposition midfielders are managing to annoy and frustrate Alli, but more importantly restrict the danger he can cause in the penalty area.

Mauricio Pochettino would much prefer Alli to find his form without a spell out of Tottenham’s team, but that is a tried and tested way of inspiring a resurgence in a young player going through a tough time. Whether it is reminding the player of the hard work required to stay at your peak or simply taking them out of the spotlight to alleviate some of the pressure building up on them, Alli will know what may happen if his form does not improve quickly.

To reiterate, this is no crisis. Alli is a fabulous player, and no young player can expect to come through the first years of his career without a blip. Having pulled out of England’s squad for their recent friendlies, perhaps Alli is still suffering with a knock.

But all eyes will be on England’s Bright Young Thing in Dortmund on Tuesday as Tottenham look to secure first place in their Champions League group. The strut of a confident young footballer with wonderful talent has been missed over the last few months.


Team to watch – Liverpool
Having thrown away two points at home to Sevilla and drawn again in Moscow, only six points from two games against Maribor would do for Liverpool. If ten goals in two games didn’t put Jurgen Klopp’s team back in the driving seat for qualification, Sevilla and Spartak sharing the spoils over their two games did.

Now Klopp takes Liverpool into their hardest group game knowing that defeat would most likely see Liverpool drop down to third in the group and provoke all manner of panic ahead of a must-win tie against Spartak at Anfield. It would also mean that top spot would be out of Liverpool’s reach.

Still, Liverpool’s form merits us looking on the bright side. They have won their last four matches in all competitions, scoring 13 goals and conceding just one. The defensive incompetence that haunted them during defeat to Tottenham at Wembley has been mercifully absent from victories against admittedly weaker opposition.

In the return fixture at Anfield, Liverpool squandered chances from open play and the penalty spot before succumbing to a late equaliser. Tuesday is their opportunity to rectify that wrong against a Sevilla side who have showed plenty of defensive weakness of their own in the Champions League this season. There are 19 sides in the competition who have conceded fewer goals.

With a one-point lead at the top of Group E, Liverpool should be happy to play for a pragmatic draw in Seville and thus ensure they can win this group with victory in their final group game. Yet we have watched too much of this team under Klopp and his predecessor to know that grinding out draws isn’t really Liverpool’s style. That only makes their performance more fascinating.


Manager to watch – Massimo Allegri
One of the biggest misnomers in football is that elite club management is easy, an argument that usually ends with someone challenging Pep Guardiola to go and manage Dagenham if he really wants to prove himself. No really, that happened.

Of course managers of those clubs are given large transfer budgets and wage bills, but they are also forced to deal with pressure building after one or two poor results. See Zinedine Zidane for details.

See too Massimo Allegri. The two managers of last season’s Champions League finalists have their teams third in their respective domestic leagues and second in their Champions League groups. While Allegri may argue that the presence of Barcelona in Juventus’ group alleviates plenty of blame, supporters are not used to seeing their team anywhere but first in Serie A. A 3-2 defeat to Sampdoria on Sunday will do little to address the suspicion that this Juventus era of domestic dominance is coming to an end.

More immediately, Allegri will want to avoid an unwanted statistical quirk when he faces Barcelona on Wednesday. Juventus have not lost consecutive matches since August 2015. Now would be the perfect time for another wonderful European night for this exceptional, if ageing, team.


One-on-one battle to watch – Marek Suchy vs Romelu Lukaku
You might have detected a small release of frustration in Romelu Lukaku’s finish on Saturday against Newcastle. The clue was in the way he kicked the ball at 583 mph into the roof of the net.

Lukaku has taken an awful lot of stick over the last few weeks, some of it well-deserved. Yet he would argue that he is a striker who relies on service, and point to his goal record to prove that he thrives when that service is provided. That service has recently been lacking at Manchester United.

With United’s top spot virtually secured, Jose Mourinho could choose to rest players against FC Basel. Yet he is surely more likely to give Pogba a rest and see if this new-look frontline, with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Lukaku all starting, can get the best out of his central striker even in Pogba’s absence. If that does happen, Mourinho may well begin smiling again.


Football League game to watch – Aston Villa vs Sunderland
A penny for the thoughts of Chris Coleman on this crisp November morning. The Wales manager used his massive bank of goodwill to buy himself a ticket to the saddest gun show in town by taking the Sunderland job.

Within 48 hours, West Brom had sacked Tony Pulis and Paul Clement edged closer to the sack at Wales’ only Premier League club. Meanwhile, managing Sunderland right now is like accepting the captain’s job on the Titanic just as it is splitting in two and Leonardo DiCaprio is preparing to get mushy.

Aston Villa, meanwhile, are starting to move in the right direction after their massive transfer spend. There have been blips against Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday, but Villa have won seven of their last ten league games. The nature of the Championship means that they are as far off first place as they are 17th, but Villa are at least in the play-offs. This, finally, is progress.

As for Sunderland, I have hunted around in the cupboards for some positivity and have only come up with this. After setting the record for the longest winless home run in English football history on Saturday, it must at least be nice to be playing an away game. Maybe.


European game to watch – Monaco vs RB Leipzig
The surprise packages of European football in 2016/17 meet in Monaco knowing that at least one of them will be knocked out of the Champions League at the first hurdle, and it is quite possible that both could be eliminated at the hands of Porto and Besiktas. For the teams who finished first in France and second in Germany last season, that would be one in the eye for the major European leagues and a shot in the arm for Portugal and Turkey.


Writer to watch – Daniel Storey

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